- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

Two local House Republicans have asked the General Accounting Office to look into auditing Metro's operations and procurement procedures in the wake of reports of contracting and safety irregularities in the transit system.

The investigation being sought by Reps. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia and Constance A. Morella of Maryland would be the third federal audit of Metro this year and the first GAO probe since 1979.

The House members have asked the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, to determine the scope of an audit before formally asking the agency to conduct one.

On Tuesday, GAO auditors met with Metro General Manager Richard White to discuss the audit's scope and will report to Mr. Davis and Mrs. Morella next week.

Metro has weathered a deluge of problems this year, from reports of a high-priced consultant being hired without the board of directors' knowledge to a spate of tunnel fires that have hampered commutes and raised safety concerns.

"Mr. Davis is concerned about the number of equipment breakdowns, fires, increased travel time that we hear and read about, and Mr. Davis is very concerned about Metro's contracting and procurement practices, which he believes may be the heart of the problems," said Davis spokesman David Merin.

Mr. Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's subcommittee on the District, would like to see if a local or federal panel also could oversee Metro, Mr. Merin added.

Metro, which was created by Congress in 1967, is governed by a board of directors consisting of appointed officials from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Merin said Mr. Davis and Mrs. Morella, a member of the Government Reform subcommittee on the District, are expected to decide next week whether to seek a full audit.

Mrs. Morella has many concerns about Metro's performance and contracting failures but has not decided how she wishes to handle oversight, said her spokesman, Jonathan Dean. He said the Government Reform subcommittee on the District could be used to provide oversight.

"Congresswoman Morella has been discussing this with the rest of the regional delegation about the continuing performance problems and how to resolve the problems. Contracting is also a potential problem [for review]," Mr. Dean said. "It is all preliminary at this point."

Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said GAO auditors told Mr. White during a 90-minute meeting Tuesday they were interested in management practices, operations and maintenance, communications and legislative and regulatory problems.

Mr. Merin said the meeting was designed to see how much information the auditors could gather from Metro and deliver to Congress. He said the GAO will recommend to Mr. Davis and Mrs. Morella the scope and depth of the audit so they can decide how to proceed.

Already this year two federal agencies have audited the transit authority and at least three top Metro officials have lost their jobs.

A Federal Transit Administration audit found several deficiencies in Metro's purchasing procedures. The Transportation Department inspector general is still investigating how a part-time consultant's $100,000 contract grew to $333,000 within a year without the Metro board's knowledge.

Former Metro Procurement Director Francis X. "Buddy" Watson, who approved the $333,000 contract, lost his job when it was eliminated in a reshuffling of personnel.

Bea Hicks, former chief operating officer for rail, was demoted, and Charles Thomas, former deputy general manager for operations, resigned after The Washington Times reported that a disabled subway train full of passengers rolled out of control about 50 yards in May.

The Times reported that control center supervisors and controllers defied safety rules and the laws of gravity when they ordered operators to couple a rescue train on the uphill side of the disabled train.

When the coupling failed, the disabled train rolled out of control until the operator manually set the brakes.

Mr. Thomas said he resigned for "personal reasons," but Metro officials said his resignation came "under fire."

Metro has had numerous tunnel fires one as recently as yesterday in the subway system since an April 20 blaze near the Foggy Bottom station. In that incident, the Operations Control Center ordered a train operator to drive her passenger-filled train into a smoky tunnel to investigate the fire.

Yesterday a small insulator fire on Metro's Orange Line hindered the morning rush-hour commute for more than an hour.

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